Against ‘Originism’

In a previous article I introduced the concept of ‘Originism’, and in this article I will define this term, explain the significance of it, and that how this concept frames historical analysis, and constructs historical knowledge, needs to be resisted.

Originism contends that a concept, idea, or process is explained, justified, or legitimated by its origins; so that investigating, or excavating, the historical conjuncture of is origins is the most powerful explanatory tool available for historical analysis. This contends that when and where something was birthed is the most important attribute of anything that can be conceptualised as moving, or evolving, through time.

It is not a defined political or ideological position, but as postulated by the philosopher of history Hayden White, it can be deemed a trope; largely, but not exclusively, to be found in explicitly historical analyses. It is a conceptual schema into which content can be injected, prefiguring the conscious apprehension of the object of analysis. This framing sets the boundaries of the analysis, and the mode in which the argument will be applied. It is not a coherent position with its own set of rules, or central tenets, but rather an unexamined axiom that pervades large swathes of historical thinking. It can also be identified in literature, social science, and politics, which then serves to reify and entrench it within popular consciousness.

This concept is important to explore, because as a trope Originism serves to exclude modes of historical analysis that challenge the status quo, or question the power dynamics of society. It to buttresses mainstream histories of glory, development, and progress by presenting a Panglossian view of history; whatever is, is right. It contravenes, or deliberately ignores, two important tenets of historical analysis: it did not have to happen the way it did, and the historian is always looking backwards. These tenets may so seem so banal as to be hardly worth mentioning, but they are seemingly often forgotten, or conveniently misused, that they are always worth restating.

In the terms set by Hayden White, Originism can be categorised as a form of “emplotment”; a mode of explanation that constructs the narrative of history in a certain way in order to provide meaning. The argument that it employs is deterministic; if you can discover its initial conditions of the system then you can describe and explain its current state. History simply becomes the unfolding of the eternal laws of historical motion.

This obscures the historical process, crystalising certain, specific moments in aspic and reducing them to natural phenomena, removed from the sphere of human control. It shifts all explanatory power into a kernel in the past, which explains everything, but which cannot be comprehended in human terms or modified by human actions, and also removes any responsibility to. At a stroke, agency and contingency are removed, events completely subsumed under a naturalised determinism. It conceptualises history as series of crude, mechanical causal relationships, but it is also an example of ‘revelation’ history. The belief that all that will ever exist already exists latently; history is reduced to mere archaeology.

These tenets of Originism reveal a conception of history as something that can be understood only as something in the ‘past’ which affects events in the ‘present’, rather than as a continuous relationship and conversation between the past and the present, in which historical knowledge is constructed in the present, rather than simply excavated, or revealed. It foregrounds cause and effect as the pivotal aspect of historical understanding — something happened in the past, a cause, producing an effect, in the present. It abstracts both of these, placing them in silos, stripping them of context, and obscuring what lies between them. History becomes ossified, unchanging, a black box. Historical knowledge is converted into something completely instrumental; its only use is to explain some specific event in the present.

History becomes teleology; validated only if it can be causally linked to something extant in the present. Ideas, concepts, documents, and themes which fall by the wayside become irrelevant — the only thing important in the study of history is the search for ‘buds’ or ‘seeds’; morsels of historical content which contain the fully grown flower of the present, only important for what it is to become, an object of portent, rather than existing in its own time on its own merit. The received wisdom of the history of capitalism is the clearest example of this; works studying it seek the earliest precise moment when the vitalist forces of capitalism threw off the yolk of previously existing human civilisation, bursting forth from the cage of irrationalism, fully formed as an economic system.

In reality capitalism is a contingent social and economic system with its own internal dynamics and logic that developed in a specific historical conjuncture, rather than the manifestation of the natural urges or instincts of man. Originism serves to flatten contingent phenomena like this; capitalism is conceived as a system with an inherent worth or vitality, proven by its current dominance, therefore no historical explanation needs to be offered; all that one is compelled or required to do is locate its initial manifestation.

A dialectical historical analysis foregrounds construction, synthesis; something exists that did not previously, the birth of the new from the old. This is more nuanced than a simple “x causes y” conception of history and cannot be contorted to fit into an Originism narrative. It is also a more emancipatory view of the historical process; revelation history constrains the realm of the possible and naturalises and ossifies the dynamics of history, folding the future back into the past, constraining the possibility of actual change.

We can never know what the starting point of anything really is, if there can be said to be one in any meaningful way, so the constant striving for the reconstruction of earlier and earlier historical conditions serves as a proxy. Truth value seemingly increases in relation to how far away one can place the origin. This lies in contrast to the accepted ways of modelling a system, which places primacy on proximity — the most accurate way of predicting the state of any system is to extrapolate from the period immediately preceding it.

This relationship is not necessarily simply a function only of absolute time. More, it is about relative time; a length of time that is important to whoever is expounding this kind of analysis. Perhaps time in this instance can be separated into eras — purely subjective ones — and what gives an analysis ballast is the origins occurring in a faraway enough era that things can be seen as substantially different, making the past a sufficiently foreign country; the length of existence of any extant phenomena becomes its own justification. This distinction severs the link between the past and the present in the authors investigation — placing enough substrate, or bedrock, between them as archaeologist, and the desired prize — while obscuring or ignoring the interceding strata.

Certain historical moments or events become metaphorical statues; historical objects transfigured into symbols of the unchanging, eternal and concrete nature of the past, but when examined actually reflect a certain conjuncture, the results of specific human actions with their own motivations. But they have already become lodged in the collective historical mind as a pure representation of the genesis of extant political, ideological, or institutional artefacts, obscuring their historical development, and the reasons their impacts are still felt today, or why they may be viewed as important.

Examples such the Magna Carta, the Glorious Revolution, or the US constitution highlight this tendency, serving to reinforce narratives of national exceptionalism or a innate commitment to the full realisation of the possibility of mankind. They are wrenched from their historical context and used as ballast for contemporary, ideological contentions; the distant nature of their origins adds justification for their existence in the present. This becomes a self-referential cycle whereby the interest and heft attached to this historical causative artefact stems from a present ideological project, but it is framed as if the intrinsic worth of the artefact is lending weight to the contemporary contention.

Excavation of Troy

These tendencies within Originism can be observed vividly in the study of the history of ideas; in search of answers in the present, historians will investigate the origins of modes of thinking that are either dominant, or at least prominent, in the present conjuncture. They will then trace this idea back as far as they can, eventually settling on an individual or a movement they deem the founders or originators of this idea. They reconstruct the circumstances of its formation, filling their narrative with overwrought portent, portraying its progenitors as pioneers outside of their age, perched above history. In this narrative, the present is simply the past with the addition of time; with time as a constant, and for which the equation has only one solution. It is teleology writ large.

It is a corollary of the ‘Panglossian’ view of history: everything has been created for the best end. That, the current dominant paradigmatic, or hegemonic, idea must be so because of its intrinsic worth; that an idea has an inherent value that means it has at some point, triumphed over other ideas. Therefore, it follows that reconstructing the origin of this idea is critical to our understanding of our present state — and that it hardly matters how or why this idea came to be hegemonic, because its very existence in the present serves as its own proof.

Again, capitalism is the most obvious example of this, but it can also be observed in how neoclassical economics is treated, or aspects of Christian teaching. The key counterpoint to understand is that no idea is so intrinsically powerful that as soon as its conceived in the human mind it is destined to change history; every idea, paradigm or teaching was initially conceived in a certain time and place and developed through its history. Ideas can change, and be changed, by the historical conjuncture in which they exist, and are employed in differing ways by different actors for different purposes. This is the relationship that is important to probe, rather than a simplistic archaeology.

It is not that there is no value in the study or the origins of ideas, but that far too much value is placed on it, and not enough on how these ideas actually exist in historical circumstances, how they spread and change, and influence. A much more useful study of ideas does not treat them in such a Hegelian way, in which ideas are the mana from heaven driving history forward, but tools employed by humans for their own purposes. Ideas are not the cause, but the justification, for action. Their survival depends on their utility, in whatever historical conjuncture they exist, rather than their intrinsic value. If this were the case then locating their origins would be of some value — like the excavation of Troy — the further down you go, the more you find! Or perhaps it is more like the excavation of Troy in that in one’s enthusiasm one goes too far down, missing the intended target.

Although Originism as a trope can be observed most clearly in the history of ideas, as a tendency it can also be found in many areas of discourse — films, movies, books, art. It is littered throughout literature; passages that read like this: ‘Jimmy sat down. 5 days later he would be dead’. This is a fundamentally a literary technique for imbuing mundanity with meaning, using portent to add unearned intrigue to character and plot development, but it also serves to reify a certain mode of historical thinking that constrains more emancipatory forms of literature. These forms, perhaps in the mode of ‘historical metafiction’ proposed by Linda Hutcheon, play with the idea of history and our ability to ‘truly know what happened’. Literary works that employ an Originistic emplotment reassert the idea that the past is a fixed concept that we can truly know, if only we dig down far enough, and that history is deterministic, each event already imbued with its entire history, which will manifest with the passage of time. Again, this precludes a future where things might be better, because everything that will happen is already written.

The genre of ‘historical fiction’, or perhaps pseudo historical fiction, provides a good example of this trope. Perhaps an alternative history, or a retelling of a particular period, trace the fates of fortunes of a group of characters, contained within which is some giant of history, a portentous bud, a name known by all for what they were to become; maybe Gandhi, JFK, or Picasso. Their narrative only conveys meaning because we know them for what they will become; the stories of their lives before they become objects of history are initially irrelevant, and only become relevant post hoc. Examining them in this way — primarily as objects of portent — reinforces a certain vision of history in which historical knowledge is fixed, and the future is foreclosed.

This phenomenon has also manifested itself recently in popular culture; several blockbusters have displayed certain examples of character development, or character ‘explanation’ that perfectly encapsulate this trope. In these varieties, the actions of any character can be explained with an examination of a certain incident, usually early in their life, which serves to supersede more proximate explanations. Batman perhaps, is a good example of this, (but also any of the current crop of ‘Origin’ stories for comic book characters) with an almost perverse ongoing obsession with the death of his parents, which seems to serve as the primary motivation for almost all of his actions. The specifics of whatever situation he finds himself in the present, and how he reacts to them are seemingly less important than this main, overall explanation for his choices. The plot and exposition move away from judging individual situations on their merits, and the actions or reactions of characters on their own terms, reducing them to automatons, their lives deterministic, relying on their initial conditions. Their biography serves as the justification for the actions, but this biography always exists in the ‘past’, rather than as a continuous, extant process. The past is the cause, and the present the effect.

Examining this trope is important because our conception of the past frames the way we understand the present. Originism centres historical analysis around certain times, places or events as the key to understanding specific concepts in the present and takes a narrow view of how historical dynamics operate. A more holistic view would attempt to understand a historical period or concept on its own merits, placing it within its proper context and centring the contingent nature of history, rather than adopting a deterministic framework. This would mean less of a fetishist obsession with the ultimate origins of things, and a longer-term view of history that does not place excessive weight on one factor or another. To put it plainly, Originism as a trope frames history in such a way as to preclude meaningful analysis and prevents meaningful engagement with the past; it obscures the past and forecloses the future, reducing possibility of emancipatory historical analyses.